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Naantali. Part 2: Of the modern city and the sea

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After a look at the more touristy parts of Naantali, let’s head to the modern city center, quite close to the old city. No surprises are really waiting for us there, but then we are also going to look at the sea-facing areas, which are rather interesting.

1. We spent the night in a place called Hotel Palo, which apparently is an old small wooden apartment building repurposed into a small hotel, on Luostarinkatu (Finn. Monastery Street). This part of the city between the old town and the commercial center has a mix of apartment buildings and 20th century wooden detached houses.

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Naantali. Part 1: Of the old town and Moomins

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Aside: Of Coronavirus and Finnish cities

It appears we’re living in an interesting time, and not in a good way. The coronavirus epidemic that started in December 2019 and wasn’t still really taken seriously by anyone (including me) in February 2020 is now well on its way in Europe, and we haven’t even seen the peak. Neither has Finland been spared; since 12.3 the country has over few days largely been put into lockdown. Kindergartens are open, internal movement mostly is not restricted (as of the time of this writing only the border of Uusimaa Region is about to be locked down) and private businesses haven’t really been under restrictions (except restaurants which are also to be closed down shortly), but pretty much everything else is closed or forbidden. The government has declared a state of emergency for the first time since the war. It is not clear how long this all would last (likely months). There are still rather few severe cases of the coronavirus disease and only a handful of deaths, but those will come for sure, and the government is frantically trying to prepare the healthcare system as good as it can.

"We well, of course, survive this," stated the President of the Republic. So we will. Me (or my girlfriend) probably don’t have much to fear from the virus directly, as we’re more or less young and without any known severe health issues. But no one knows what will become of Finland. I’m doing remote work at the moment and so does most of the IT sector, but much of the economy cannot do this. Places like restaurants, hotels or stores (apart from grocery stores) are nearly deserted, most flights and international ferries are grounded, and industry has largely stopped due to both widespread quarantines and shortage of raw materials and parts from abroad. The economical depression will be very severe. It will remain to be seen how soon and how well Finland can spring back from it. The government promises support, although it’s difficult to say whether it will be at least remotely enough.

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Karkkila is a small town about 65 km northwest of Helsinki, on the very edge of the Uusimaa Region (the "central" region of the country). I visited it rather randomly with my girlfriend and a friend from Russia who was visiting at the time, as pretty much all of us love such small Finnish places. Karkkila didn’t disappoint, either.

In truth Karkkila really felt like a very remote place. It’s difficult to believe it is really just 65 km from Helsinki by road; it looks more like a dying town somewhere in "deep Finland", so in Northern Savo or Kainuu or something. The town is built around a single enterprise, the Högfors foundry, but the foundry is actually still operating and seems to be doing reasonably well, so it can hardly be a source of decline either. Of course we still loved it; it feels like more of a genuine place than some Espoo neighborhood or touristy Porvoo old town. The decline, as is usually the case in Finland, can be seen just in lots of closed businesses, lack of new construction, visible lack of young people and the overall "time has stopped here in the 1980s" air; of course there is still no visible poverty, completely abandoned buildings, crumbling infrastructure or something like that.

Karkkila area originally belonged to Pyhäjärvi Ul municipality; "Ul" means "Uudenmaan läänin" (of Uusimaa County), as there were two other municipalities called Pyhäjärvi in completely different places. There is currently only one municipality in Finland retaining this naming scheme, Koski Tl (Turun läänin, Finn. of Turku County), even though the other Koski (Hämeenkoski) is not an independent municipality anymore, nor counties (lääni) even exist anymore. Karkkila was officially separated from Pyhäjärvi Ul in 1932, and in 1969 the rest of Pyhäjärvi Ul was rejoined back to Karkkila.

Karkkila came into being thanks to the Högfors ironworks, built on the rapids (Högfors means "high rapids" in Swedish) of the Karjaanjoki river flowing from a smallish Pyhäjärvi lake. The ironworks were established in 1820 by Arvid Henrik Bökman, a court official, and Johan Jacob Dreilick, a former director of the more famous Fiskars ironworks. Högfors ironworks used ore from Kulosuonmäki mine a few kilometers to the north of Karkkila. Production started in 1823. In truth production amounts were very small (349 tons of ore in 1824, so iron output was several times smaller even), but at the time it still amounted to ¾ of the Finnish iron production. Overall 25160 tons of ore were excavated at Kulosuonmäki, which was not really even an especially good iron deposit to begin with. The mine shut down in 1888; the ironworks then worked on imported Swedish ore. Iron smelting completely ended in 1916, but the factory continued operation as a foundry working on imported iron. Its golden years were after the World War II, when it was really busy with war reparations production, and 1800 people were employed in Karkkila; it was one of the biggest foundries in the Nordics of the time. Eventually of course production volumes subsided, and much of the foundry area was repurposed, but nonetheless it is still operating to this day as part of the Componenta company, a Finnish metalworking company owning multiple production sites all over the country.

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A few days ago I had a walk in the vicinity of the village of Siuntio (Swed. Sjundeå), about 40 km west of Helsinki. A curious place; there are still city buses of Helsinki area and even commuter trains on weekdays, but the landscape is alread completely rural, with no new apartment block construction or anything else of the sort. So I was walking on a country road, and then, behind a bend, an inscription in Russian suddenly appears! "A serviceman must value the honor and battle glory of the Armed Forces of the Union of SSR, his unit and the honor of his military rank…"

Although I hadn’t really known about this particular place, overall this is not an especially surprising find in this particular region of Finland. Siuntio belonged to Porkkala area, leased out to the USSR in 1944-1956.

As early as during the negotiations between Finland and the USSR about possible territorial exchanges in the autumn of 1939 the main stumbling block was the uncompromising desire of the USSR to have a naval base in South Finland. Although the desired territorial exchanges on the Karelian Isthmus (which are generally far better known as the reason for the ensuing Winter War) could in theory be acceptable to the Finnish side, a base at Hanko in 120 km from Helsinki would have immediately become "a gun pointed into the heart of Finland". As we all know, the USSR eventually got what it wanted and more by military means, and in 1940-1941 Hanko area was leased out for its naval base; in the Continuation War in 1941 a whole separate front line emerged there, but eventually the Soviets were forced to evacuate the base. Among 1944 peace terms the new requirement by the USSR was now not Hanko but rather the so-called Porkkala area, even far closer to Helsinki; its border would have passed just 20 km from Helsinki center (nowadays Helsinki urban area has actually already reached that old border).

Of course, Finland didn’t have much of a say at the time. About 7200 people were evacuated from a territory of 380.5 km; mostly villages of Kirkkonummi, Siuntio, Degerby. The Soviets built a harbor in the Båtvik bay, and fortifications on the peninsulas of Porkkalanniemi and Upinniemi. This was technically a lease, not an annexation; the USSR was paying Finland for the area, and the lease had a fixed term (of 50 years, until 1994). The Finnish side nonetheless considered the area lost for all practical purposes for the foreseeable future, and the evacuees were granted new plots of land, on the same terms as for the far more numerous evacuees from the Karelian Isthmus and Ladoga Karelia.

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Vaasa Center. Part 1

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And so, without further introduction, let’s have a walk around Vaasa.

Area covered in this post:

1. And like in every other Finnish city, the heart of Vaasa is its Tori, the central/market square. The one in Vaasa is a mostly empty space, paved with cobblestone, and bordered by the three central streets of Vaasa: Vaasanpuistikko (Vaasa Parkway), Hovioikeudenpustikko (Court of Appeal Parkway) and Kauppapuistikko (Market Parkway).

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Vaasa, Kvarken, Korsholm. Overview

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On the west coast of Finland, at the Kvarken Strait of the Gulf of Bothnia, in the region of Ostrobothnia lies a city called Vaasa, or in Swedish Vasa. The sunniest city in Finland, and the most Swedish city of Finland. Its population is typical for a Finnish regional center, about 68,000. It is not a city foreign tourists visit often, save perhaps the Swedish ones, from just beyond the narrow sea.

For me Vaasa however is absolutely special, and far better familiar than any other Finnish city. Vaasa is the city where I spent my first 1.5 years in Finland, from December 2017 to June 2019. It is not a common choice for immigrants either. For foreign students maybe (there is a university in Vaasa), but not for work-based immigrants, and especially not for software developers like me. But I was lucky to find a job there in a small company, and even though the job was not very exciting nor paid particularly impressively, I still rather enjoyed it too.

Eventually however I was forced to move from Vaasa to Helsinki area to search for other jobs. I don’t really like living there after my experience in Vaasa, and maybe one day I will return (although more likely I will move to some other smaller city but not actually to Vaasa).

In any case Vaasa will always hold a special place in my heart, and I have a lot to tell about it. I started writing this by going through my photo archives and picking everything that could be relevant, and I came with about 750 pictures. Of course I will not use them all here, but we’ll see how it goes. Hopefully with Vaasa I can also start writing what I really like, which is the great guide into the glorious country of Finland.

Mind you, Vaasa is a fairly ordinary Finnish city. But it’s a great place to live in, and also, unlike some new Finnish cities (for example, Vaasa’s neighbor and rival Seinäjoki), there are bits of interesting older architecture and local history hidden here and there pretty much everywhere. Overall I hope this and the later posts can be a real look into what, let’s say, second-grade Finnish cities look like.

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Public transport in Helsinki area. Part 2

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In the second part we will explore in more details current modes of public tranport of the HSL system of Helsinki, including an overview of their function, routes and vehicles/rolling stock used. Details on what exactly is HSL and how the public transport system works in general can be found in the first part.

Commuter trains

Commuter trains scheme.  The green part of the scheme to the top right is non-HSL regional train area.  Source: HSL
Commuter trains scheme. The green part of the scheme to the top right is non-HSL regional train area. Source: HSL

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Public transport in Helsinki area. Part 1

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Helsinki is the capital of Finland, and by far its biggest urban area. Although the population of Helsinki proper is about 650,000, it forms a contiguous urban area with several different municipalities, over 1.2 million people large (~1/5 of the population of the country). With the belt of outer commuter towns, it exceedes 1.4 million people (~¼ of the population). In comparison, the second biggest urban area (Tampere) is home only to 335,000 people.

As such, Helsinki is currently the only city in Finland having highly developed and well-functioning public transport. As of 2019, it is the only Finnish city having any form of commuter rail, metro, trams and BRT (bus rapid transit). In other words, all other Finnish cities are limited to basic bus networks. Car traffic dominates other Finnish cities, while in Helsinki car ownership and especially car use is drastically less widespread (though still common). While other cities are undertaking some steps to improve their public transit (Tampere in particular is building a tram line, and regional train service from 2020 will be improved around Tampere and in a few other locations), they are still completely incomparable to Helsinki.

Since summer 2019, I’ve been living in Espoo (Helsinki suburb) and as such, have an ample opportunity to experience Helsinki public transport on my own. Previously I also lived in Vaasa (a much smaller Finnish city), Yekaterinburg (a Russian city roughly comparable to Helsinki in size), and in St. Petersburg (a Russian city much bigger than Helsinki), which all form useful reference points. In this two-part article, I’ll try to explain Helsinki public transport as best as possible.

Let’s start with a short summary:

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Lule Lapland: Laponia Area

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And in the final part of the Lule Lapland series, it is finally time to see the beauty of the northern nature, which is why I was there all along. But as it generally happens in my travels, I saw loads of other fascinating stuff on the way, which is why I had to write the first five posts about less awesome but still interesting places.

Laponia area, as I already mentioned at some point before, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a continuous amalgamation of a number of national parks and nature reserves, centered mostly around the Lule River valley and including a good chunk of the Scandinavian Mountains. Generally it shouldn’t be confused with Lapland (as in, north of Finland, Sweden, Norway in Russia) or Lappland (as in, a specific province of North Sweden). Not all of the notable areas in North Sweden, and not even all of the national parks of North Sweden, belong to Laponia; for example, Abisko doesn’t. But Laponia, if considered a single area, would indeed be far bigger than any single national park, at about 200×100 km size.

Many parts of Laponia are indeed a sheer wilderness, where you’d be lucky to find a marked trail. The most accessible parts of Laponia are Muddus and Stora Sjöfallet national parks; both of them have road connections, marked trails and shelters. Stora Sjöfallet, being more or less in the center of Laponia, is also where the overall visitor center for the area is located. These are also the only parts of Laponia suitable for day hikes. So, I visited them both.

I started with Muddus, but first not the Muddus proper, but rather with its tiny northwestern part, the Oarjemus Stubbá fell. It is effectively discontiguous with the rest of Muddus, separated from it by vast mires with no trails through. But it is a nice and easy to visit fell which was on my way (from Gällivare to Stora Sjöfallet), so I decided to stop here.

An overview map of Laponia and other information is available from laponia.nu website. Note however that the Swedish version of the website is more complete.

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Lule Lapland: Gällivare

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The municipality of Gällivare (pronounced "yellivareh") is the second northernmost municipality in the inland part of North Sweden. With its vast 16,800 sq. km area it includes a good chunk of the Scandinavian Mountains, but the population is quite minor, at 17,600 people. Of these 10,300 live in the city of Gällivare proper, and about 4200 more in the nearby settlements of Malmberget and Koskullskulle.

This remote area was once inhabited only by the Sami people, and is in fact still divided into three mountain Sami and one forest Sami "village" (sameby). A lone, low mountain named Jiellovárre (Cracked Fell) by the Sami existed in the foothills of the Scandinavian Mountains. In the 1690s, some Per Andersson from Prästholm in Råneå, a place way down by the Bay of Bothnia, first discovered iron ore at Jiellovárre. It took quite a while to actually start at least exploratory mining, in 1735 by Captain Carl Johan Thingwall. Thus the history of Gällivare started. The mountain was initially knows as Illuvare in Swedish, then as Gällivare, and then as simply Malmberget (Ore Mountain), but the name Gällivare stuck for the whole area. It was not the first mine in North Sweden though; that honor belongs to Svappavaara even further in the north, where a copper mine, a fairly large one for the time and location, operated from 1664 until the 1700s; currently there is another iron mine at Svappavaara.

The early history of the iron mine was long and confused, with it changing owners many times. The ore deposit was huge and of the highest quality, but the problem, of course, is that it was in the middle of nowhere over the Arctic Circle, and iron ore is a bulky thing to transport. All attempted mine operations remained small until the end of the 19th century. The ore was generally transported by the local Sami people on reindeer sledges to smelters closer to the Bay of Bothnia and civilization; of course this was ridiculously inefficient.

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